Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.

Silver.


Miss Della Whitmore gazed meditatively down the hill at the bunk house. The boys were all at work, she knew. She had heard J. G. tell two of them to “ride the sheep coulee fence,” and had been consumed with amazed curiosity at the order. Wherefore should two sturdy young men be commanded to ride a fence, when there were horses that assuredly needed exercise—judging by their antics—and needed it badly? She resolved to ask J. G. at the first opportunity.

The others were down at the corrals, branding a few calves which belonged on the home ranch. She had announced her intention of going to look on, and her brother, knowing how the boys would regard her presence, had told her plainly that they did not want her. He said it was no place for girls, anyway. Then he had put on a very dirty pair of overalls and hurried down to help for he was not above lending a hand when there was extra work to be done.

Miss Della Whitmore tidied the kitchen and dusted the sitting room, and then, having a pair of mischievously idle hands and a very feminine curiosity, conceived an irrepressible desire to inspect the bunk house.

J. G. would tell her that, also, was no place for girls, she supposed, but J. G. was not present, so his opinion did not concern her. She had been at the Flying U ranch a whole week, and was beginning to feel that its resources for entertainment—aside from the masculine contingent, which held some promising material—were about exhausted. She had climbed the bluffs which hemmed the coulee on either side, had selected her own private saddle horse, a little sorrel named Concho, and had made friends with Patsy, the cook. She had dazzled Cal Emmett with her wiles and had found occasion to show Chip how little she thought of him; a highly unsatisfactory achievement, since Chip calmly overlooked her whenever common politeness permitted him.

There yet remained the unexplored mystery of that little cabin down the slope, from which sounded so much boylike laughter of an evening. She watched and waited till she was positive the coast was clear, then clapped an old hat of J. G.‘s upon her head and ran lightly down the hill.

With her hand upon the knob, she ran her eye critically along the outer wall and decided that it had, at some remote date, been treated to a coat of whitewash; gave the knob a sudden twist, with a backward glance like a child stealing cookies, stepped in and came near falling headlong. She had not expected that remoteness of floor common to cabins built on a side hill.

“Well!” She pulled herself together and looked curiously about her. What struck her at first was the total absence of bunks. There were a couple of plain, iron bedsteads and two wooden ones made of rough planks. There was a funny-looking table made of an inverted coffee box with legs of two-by-four, and littered with a characteristic collection of bachelor trinkets. There was a glass lamp with a badly smoked chimney, a pack of cards, a sack of smoking tobacco and a box of matches. There was a tin box with spools of very coarse thread, some equally coarse needles and a pair of scissors. There was also—and Miss Whitmore gasped when she saw it—a pile of much-read magazines with the latest number of her favorite upon the top. She went closer and examined them, and glanced around the room with doubting eyes. There were spurs, quirts, chaps and queer-looking bits upon the walls; there were cigarette stubs and burned matches innumerable upon the rough, board floor, and here in her hand—she turned the pages of her favorite abstractedly and a paper fluttered out and fell, face upward, on the floor. She stooped and recovered it, glanced and gasped.

“Well!”

It was only a pencil sketch done on cheap, unruled tablet paper, but her mind dissolved into a chaos of interrogation marks and exclamation points—with the latter predominating more and more the longer she looked.

It showed blunt-topped hills and a shallow coulee which she remembered perfectly. In the foreground a young woman in a smart tailored costume, the accuracy of which was something amazing, stood proudly surveying a dead coyote at her feet. In a corner of the picture stood a weather-beaten stump with a long, thin splinter beside it on the ground. Underneath was written in characters beautifully symmetrical: “The old maid’s credential card.”

There was no gainsaying the likeness; even the rakish tilt of the jaunty felt hat, caused by the wind and that wild dash across country, was painstakingly reproduced. And the fanciful tucks on the sleeve of the gown—“and I didn’t suppose he had deigned so much as a glance!” was her first coherent thought.

Miss Whitmore’s soul burned with resentment. No woman, even at twenty-three, loves to be called “the old maid”—especially by a keen-witted young man with square chin and lips with a pronounced curve to them. And whoever supposed the fellow could draw like that—and notice every tiny little detail without really looking once? Of course, she knew her hat was crooked, with the wind blowing one’s head off, almost, but he had no business: “The old maid’s credential card!”—“Old maid,” indeed!

“The audacity of him!”

“Beg pardon?”

Miss Whitmore wheeled quickly, her heart in the upper part of her throat, judging by the feel of it. Chip himself stood just inside the door, eying her coldly.

“I was not speaking,” said Miss Whitmore, haughtily, in futile denial.

To this surprising statement Chip had nothing to say. He went to one of the iron beds, stooped and drew out a bundle which, had Miss Whitmore asked him what it was, he would probably have called his “war sack.” She did not ask; she stood and watched him, though her conscience assured her it was a dreadfully rude thing to do, and that her place was up at the house. Miss Whitmore was frequently at odds with her conscience; at this time she stood her ground, backed by her pride, which was her chiefest ally in such emergencies.

When he drew a huge, murderous-looking revolver from its scabbard and proceeded calmly to insert cartridge after cartridge, Miss Whitmore was constrained to speech.

“Are you—going to—shoot something?”

The question struck them both as particularly inane, in view of his actions.

“I am,” replied he, without looking up. He whirled the cylinder into place, pushed the bundle back under the bed and rose, polishing the barrel of the gun with a silk handkerchief.

Miss Whitmore hoped he wasn’t going to murder anyone; he looked keyed up to almost any desperate deed.

“Who—what are you going to shoot?” Really, the question asked itself.

Chip raised his eyes for a fleeting glance which took in the pencil sketch in her hand. Miss Whitmore observed that his eyes were much darker than hazel; they were almost black. And there was, strangely enough, not a particle of curve to his lips; they were thin, and straight, and stern.

“Silver. He broke his leg.”

“Oh!” There was real horror in her tone. Miss Whitmore knew all about Silver from garrulous Patsy. Chip had rescued a pretty, brown colt from starving on the range, had bought him of the owner, petted and cared for him until he was now one of the best saddle horses on the ranch. He was a dark chestnut, with beautiful white, crinkly mane and tail and white feet. Miss Whitmore had seen Chip riding him down the coulee trail only yesterday, and now—Her heart ached with the pity of it.

“How did it happen?”

“I don’t know. He was in the little pasture. Got kicked, maybe.” Chip jerked open the door with a force greatly in excess of the need of it.

Miss Whitmore started impulsively toward him. Her eyes were not quite clear.

“Don’t—not yet! Let me go. If it’s a straight break I can set the bone and save him.”

Chip, savage in his misery, regarded her over one square shoulder.

“Are you a veterinary surgeon, may I ask?”

Miss Whitmore felt her cheeks grow hot, but she stood her ground.

“I am not. But a broken bone is a broken bone, whether it belongs to a man—or some other beast!”

“Y—e-s?”

Chip’s way of saying yes was one of his chief weapons of annihilation. He had a peculiar, taunting inflection which he could give to it, upon occasion, which caused prickles of flesh upon the victim. To say that Miss Whitmore was not utterly quenched argues well for her courage. She only gasped, as though treated to an unexpected dash of cold water, and went on.

“I’m sure I might save him if you’d let me try. Or are you really eager to shoot him?” Chip’s muscles shrank. Eager to shoot him—Silver, the only thing that loved and understood him?

“You may come and look at him, if you like,” he said, after a breath or two.

Miss Whitmore overlooked the tolerance of the tone and stepped to his side, mechanically clutching the sketch in her fingers. It was Chip, looking down at her from his extra foot of height, who called her attention to it.

“Are you thinking of using that for a plaster?”

Miss Whitmore started and blushed, then, with an uptilt of chin:

“If I need a strong irritant, yes!” She calmly rolled the paper into a tiny tube and thrust it into the front of her pink shirt-waist for want of a pocket—and Chip, watching her surreptitiously, felt a queer grip in his chest, which he thought it best to set down as anger.

Silently they hurried down where Silver lay, his beautiful, gleaming mane brushing the tender green of the young grass blades. He lifted his head when he heard Chip’s step, and neighed wistfully. Chip bent over him, black agony in his eyes. Miss Whitmore, looking on, realized for the first time that the suffering of the horse was a mere trifle compared to that of his master. Her eyes wandered to the loaded revolver which bulged his pocket behind, and she shuddered—but not for Silver. She went closer and laid her hand upon the shimmery mane. The horse snorted nervously and struggled to rise.

“He’s not used to a woman,” said Chip, with a certain accent of pride. “I guess this is the closest he’s ever been to one. You see, he’s never had any one handle him but me.”

“Then he certainly is no lady’s horse,” said Miss Whitmore, good-naturedly. Somehow, in the last moment, her attitude toward Chip had changed considerably. “Try and make him let me feel the break.”

With much coaxing and soothing words it was accomplished, and it did not take long, for it was a front leg, broken straight across, just above the fetlock. Miss Whitmore stood up and smiled into the young man’s eyes, conscious of a desire to bring the curve back into his lips.

“It’s very simple,” she declared, cheerfully. “I know I can cure him. We had a colt at home with his leg broken the same way, and he was entirely cured—and doesn’t even limp. Of course,” she added, honestly, “Uncle John doctored him—but I helped.”

Chip drew the back of his gloved hand quickly across his eyes and swallowed.

“Miss Whitmore—if you could save old Silver——

Miss Whitmore, the self-contained young medical graduate, blinked rapidly and found urgent need of tucking in wind-blown, brown locks, with her back to the tall cow-puncher who had unwittingly dropped his mask for an instant. She took off J. G.‘s old hat, turned it clean around twice and put it back exactly as it was before; unless the tilt over her left ear was a trifle more pronounced. Show me the woman who can set a hat straight upon her head without aid of a mirror!

“We must get him up from there and into a box stall. There is one, isn’t there?”

“Y—e-s——” Chip hesitated. “I wouldn’t ask the Old—your brother, for the use of it, though; not even for Silver.”

“I will,” returned she, promptly. “I never feel any compunction about asking for what I want—if I can’t get it any other way. I can’t understand why you wanted to shoot—you must have known this bone could be set.”

“I didn’t want to——” Chip bent over and drove a fly from Silver’s shoulder. “When a horse belonging to the outfit gets crippled like that, he makes coyote bait. A forty-dollar cow-puncher can’t expect any better for his own horse.”

“He’ll get better, whatever he may expect. I’m just spoiling for something to practice on, anyway—and he’s such a beauty. If you can get him up, lead him to the stable while I go and tell J. G. and get some one to help.” She started away.

“Whom shall I get?” she called back.

“Weary, if you can—and Slim’s a good hand with horses, too.”

“Slim—is that the tall, lanky man?”

“No—he’s the short, fat one. That bean-pole is Shorty.”

Miss Whitmore fixed these facts firmly in her memory and ran swiftly to where rose all the dust and noise from the further corral. She climbed up until she could look conveniently over the top rail. The fence seemed to her dreadfully high—a clear waste of straight, sturdy poles.

“J. G—e-e-e!”

“Baw—h-h-h!” came answer from a wholly unexpected source as a big, red cow charged and struck the fence under her feet a blow which nearly dislodged her from her perch. The cow recoiled a few steps and lowered her head truculently.

“Scat! Shoo, there! Go on away, you horrid old thing you! Oh, J. G—e-e-e!”

Weary, who was roping, had just dragged a calf up to the fire and was making a loop to catch another when the cow made a second charge at the fence. He dashed in ahead of her, his horse narrowly escaping an ugly gash from her long, wicked horns. As he dodged he threw his rope with the peculiar, back-hand twist of the practiced roper, catching her by the head and one front foot. Straight across the corral he shot to the end of a forty-foot rope tied fast to the saddle horn. The red cow flopped with a thump which knocked all desire for trouble out of her for the time. Shorty slipped the rope off and climbed the fence, but the cow only shook her aching sides and limped sullenly away to the far side of the corral. J. G. and the boys had shinned up the fence like scared cats up a tree when the trouble began, and perched in a row upon the top. The Old Man looked across and espied his sister, wide-eyed and undignified, watching the outcome.

“Dell! What in thunder the you doing on that fence?” he shouted across the corral.

“What in thunder are you doing on the fence, J. G.?” she flung back at him.

The Old Man climbed shamefacedly down, followed by the others. “Is that what you call ‘getting put in the clear’?” asked she, genially. “I see now—it means clear on the top rail.”

“You go back to the house and stay there!” commanded J. G., wrathfully. The boys were showing unmistakable symptoms of mirth, and the laugh was plainly against the Old Man.

“Oh, no,” came her voice, honey-sweet and calm. “Shoo that cow this way again, will you, Mr..Weary? I like to watch J. G. shin up the fence. It’s good for him; it makes one supple, and J. G.’s actually getting fat.”

“Hurry along with that calf!” shouted the Old Man, recovering the branding iron and turning his back on his tormentor.

The boys, beyond grinning furtively at one another, behaved with quite praiseworthy gravity. Miss Whitmore watched while Weary dragged a spotted calf up to the fire and the boys threw it to the ground and held it until the Old Man had stamped it artistically with a smoking U.

“Oh, J. G.!”

“Ain’t you gone yet? What d’yuh want?”

“Silver broke his leg.”

“Huh. I knew that long ago. Chip’s gone to shoot him. You go on to the house, doggone it! You’ll have every cow in the corral on the fight. That red waist of yours——

“It isn’t red, it’s pink—a beautiful rose pink. If your cows don’t like it, they’ll have to be educated up to it. Chip isn’t either going to shoot that horse, J. G. I’m going to set his leg and cure him—and I’m going to keep him in one of your box stalls. There, now!”

Cal Emmett took a sudden fit of coughing and leaned his forehead weakly against a rail, and Weary got into some unnecessary argument with his horse and bolted across to the gate, where his shoulders were seen to shake—possibly with a nervous chill; the bravest riders are sometimes so affected. Nobody laughed, however. Indeed, Slim seemed unusually serious, even for him, while Happy Jack looked positively in pain.

“I want that short, fat man to help” (Slim squirmed at this blunt identification of himself) “and Mr. Weary, also.” Miss Whitmore might have spoken with a greater effect of dignity had she not been clinging to the top of the fence with two dainty slipper toes thrust between the rails not so very far below. Under the circumstances, she looked like a pretty, spoiled little schoolgirl.

“Oh. You’ve turned horse doctor, have yuh?” J. G. leaned suddenly upon his branding iron and laughed. “Doggone it, that ain’t a bad idea. I’ve got two box stalls, and there’s an old gray horse in the pasture—the same old gray horse that come out uh the wilderness—with a bad case uh string-halt. I’ll have some uh the boys ketch him up and you can start a horsepital!”

“Is that supposed to be a joke, J. G.? I never can tell your jokes by ear. If it is, I’ll laugh. I’m going to use whatever I need and you can do without Mr.—er—those two men.”

“Oh, go ahead. The horse don’t belong to me, so I’m willing you should practice on him a while. Say! Dell! Give him that truck you’ve been pouring down me for the last week. Maybe he’ll relish the taste of the doggone stuff—I don’t.”

“I suppose you’ve labeled that a ‘Joke—please laugh here,’” sighed Miss Whitmore, plaintively, climbing gingerly down.